Smithers Plantation Recordings

To collect authentic, undocumented folk music, John A. Lomax and his son Alan specifically sought out "made up" songs, ones that had been created and developed by everyday people. In 1934, while searching for the local and secular music of African Americans, the Lomaxes stopped at the Smither farm, or Smithers Plantation as they called it, near the Trinity River in Walker County. There, they asked farm manager Tollie R. Gaines for his help with their project. Gaines called for one of the farm's renters known as One-Eyed Charley, but he was reluctant to sing any songs other than spirituals, even when Gaines encouraged him to share ones that the farm workers made up while plowing fields or chopping wood.

Later that evening, the Lomaxes set up their recording equipment in a building that served as a church and school-house, and several African Americans joined them. Alan attempted to prompt them by asking if anyone knew "Stagolee" and though a man named Blue said he did, he offered to share a song he had just made up that day. Blue's "Po' Farmer," Alan later wrote, was about the "tribulations of the Negro renter in the South." Once Blue stopped singing, he continued speaking and directed his comments to the President, explaining "you just don't know how bad they're treating us folks down here" and urging Roosevelt to come to Texas and do "something for us poor folks." The Lomaxes played Blue's recording back and Alan later recalled that "there was immense joy in this group because they felt they had communicated their problem to the big world."

Alan was particularly moved by Blue's comments and the crowd's response. He later wrote that his experience at the Smither farm "totally changed my life. I saw what I had to do. My job was to try and get as much of these views, these feelings, this unheard majority onto the center of the stage."

Others also performed that evening. A boy about 13 known as Butter Boy and described by the Lomaxes as a "runt" sang "Raise a Ruckus Tonight," which the Lomaxes believe originated as a minstrel song, and "Old Aunt Dinah," a fast-paced chant. A woman named Bat wearing pig tails and a straw hat sang alone before returning with three other women who formed a quartet that was, according to Alan, "far superior to any other group we had heard." They recorded three songs and were accompanied by Monroe Bowdry, a 61-year-old farmer whose vocals are prominently featured on "Tall Angels at the Bar."

Images

Saw Mill Worker

Saw Mill Worker

In the 1930s, several African American families rented land at the Smither farm, then under the management of Tollie R. Gaines. They worked in the fields, plowed land and chopped wood. This undated photograph shows a worker at the saw mill at the Smither farm. | Source: "Times and Place" Collection, Huntsville Public Library, WalkerCountyTreasures.com View File Details Page

Smither Farm Front Porch

Smither Farm Front Porch

The Smither farm, located along the Trinity River and seen in this undated photo, was owned by multiple generations of the Smither family who were involved in Walker County civic and business activities in the early 20th century. | Source: "Times and Place" Collection, Huntsville Public Library, WalkerCountyTreasures.com View File Details Page

Catalog Entry for Butter Boy Recording

Catalog Entry for Butter Boy Recording

This catalog entry for a 1934 recording at Smithers Plantation identifies the artist only as Butter Boy. His real name is unknown but this song and another he performed are part the American Folklife Center collection at the Library of Congress. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Catalog Entry for "Will You Guide Me"

Catalog Entry for "Will You Guide Me"

Like Butter Boy, the true identities of Bat and her quartet, listed on this Library of Congress catalog record, are not known. But the artist who joined them for this and two other recordings at Smithers Plantation in 1934 is listed as Monroe Bowdrey. This farmer, who spelled his name Bowdry, died in Walker County in 1951. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Walker County Highway Map

Walker County Highway Map

This portion of a 1936 highway map of Walker County, updated in 1940, has been modified. The striped rectangular area to the northeast shows the location of the Smither farm. | Source: Texas State Highway Department, Texas Sate Library and Archives Commission | Creator: View File Details Page

Audio

Old Aunt Dinah

In 1934, a boy about 13 years old called Butter Boy, sang "Old Aunt Dinah" for John A. and Alan Lomax when they visited the Smither farm. At the end of the recording, John acknowledges the farm manager, T.R. Gaines. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Will You Guide Me

John A. and Alan Lomax found Bat and her quartet, the women who sang "Will You Guide Me?" at the Smither farm in 1934, to be "far superior" to other groups they had heard. | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Ain't That Good News

John A. and Alan Lomax recorded Bat and her quartet, accompanied by Monroe Bowdrey, singing "Ain't That Good News" at the Smither farm in 1934. Alan noted that the quartet's "harmonic and rhythmic scope and pattern, their improvisations, were unusual and beautiful." | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Tall Angels at the Bar

Farmer Monroe Bowdrey accompanied Bat and her quartet, perhaps by clapping, on two other songs John A. and Alan Lomax recorded at the Smither farm in 1934. But his voice is clearly heard on "Tall Angels at the Bar." | Source: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amy Bertsch, “Smithers Plantation Recordings,” East Texas History, accessed June 26, 2017, http://easttexashistory.org/items/show/19.

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